In 1990, Missouri’s Supreme Court ruled in a 5-2 decision that the commissioners of Lafeyette County, Missouri, had improperly disbursed about a million dollars in forfeiture money to local law enforcement. The suit was filed by Odessa School District (Reorganized School District No. 7) on the grounds that Article IX, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution directed the proceeds of all fines and forfeitures vesting from breaches of the state’s penal code be sent to fund education. There is now statutory law that directs these funds specifically to the School Building Revolving Fund, a fund used to finance school construction. This fund has its own idiosyncratic provisions attached to its management and the manner in which funds are disbursed, but it is a legislatively created fund, with a specific mandate, and legislators can change those provisions if they choose.
What legislators have not chosen, however, is to let Missouri’s law enforcement retain the money from fines and forfeitures. But that is what happens, though a combination of shoddy reporting requirements, lack of proper enforcement mechanisms, and federal assistance to local law enforcement in diverting these funds away from Missouri’s education fund. The result is predictable. Over the last 20 years, local law enforcement policy has diverged substantially from the needs and requirements of the communities they serve, choosing often to pursue seizeable property rather than violent crimes, or even any crimes at all.
The federal involvement in this process has emerged as a primary determinant of how Missouri law enforcement sets priorities. This happens through a variety of channels, but the basic process is that money or equipment disbursed back to local law enforcement comes with an implicit federal mandate of some its own. Consider SWAT gear and training. The armor, automatic weaponry, and tactics that are part and parcel of SWAT operations are expensive and represent overwhelming military force. Rarely in domestic police work (particularly in Missouri) is force of such magnitude necessary.
But once law enforcement has expensive toys, the impetus is to use them. Equipment and tactics not used represent a waste of resources, and it is hard to justify continued support for resources that may be better used elsewhere. So once a local law enforcement agency applies for and receives federal funding for armored personnel carriers, heavy-duty assault weapons, and high-tech urban warfare gear, the impetus is on them to justify possessing these resources by using them whenever possible. In this manner, simple service of search and arrest warrants have turned into raids conducted by paramilitary squads on domestic soil.
Compounding the cycle, of course, is that the federal efforts in fighting the War on Drugs have allowed for an expansive law enforcement role that includes funding these operations by focusing on property seizures from drug offenders, many of whom are non-violent and guilty of little more than a misdemeanor.
Consider Columbia, Missouri. In March, Columbia police served a search warrant on a man suspected of trafficking cannabis. The warrant was served by a full SWAT team late at night 8 days after the warrant had been issued and without current intelligence on the suspect or his house. The video of the raid, first broken to the national media by Radley Balko at Reason Magazine, shows the SWAT team performing a “dynamic entrance”, quickly extracting the suspect’s wife and 7 year old child, and assaulting the suspect after he’d been subdued on the ground. Not seen, but heard, are the shots fired by these officers at two small dogs, one of whom was reputedly wearing a pink sweater. Adding insult to injury, the suspect was charged with a misdemeanor cannabis charge and with child endangerment.
That raid provides a good focal point for understanding this whole system. The warrant was served 8 days late because the police weren’t interested in apprehending a cannabis dealer with his product; they were interested in the cash he would have presumably generated through sales. SWAT raids cost between $2,000 and $20,000. They face strict cost-benefit scrutiny from police departments; if either the dangers to be addressed are not significant enough or the potential for seizing property doesn’t exist, the SWAT raid doesn’t happen.
Brennan David, the crime reporter for Columbia’s Daily Tribune, obtained the records for the narcotics search warrants served by Columbia Police Department’s SWAT unit between 2007 and May 2010. Of the 99 SWAT raids made by Columbia police during that time, 43% were served on time; of the warrants served at least a day late, half resulted in only misdemeanor charges, and 12.5% resulted in no charges at all. Data on forfeiture totals from those raids is not available at this time, though Columbia Police Department received over $150,000 in forfeiture proceeds from the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing program during this time. No data is available on forfeiture money that was disbursed from other DOJ programs; in the past, the Byrne grants and COPS grants also awarded by the DOJ have involved forfeiture funds (part of the problem with tracking everything is that funding sources aren’t always clearly delineated in audits).